One of the items in my last “worth reading” post — Stefan Lindegaard’s blog post “Are Universities, Tech Transfer Units Open Innovation Losers?” — is getting a lot of attention, including a Technology Transfer Tactics blog post. Given the discussions in several tech transfer groups across LinkedIn (including AUTM, Techno-L, and Technology Transfer – Valorisation), I’d like to offer some further thoughts here.
Open innovation refers to the spin-in as well as the spin-out of ideas, technology, etc. Approaching these two “directions” in concert and proactively — what we’ve called Symbiotic Innovation — is an essential component for revolutionizing technology transfer. Put simply: Spin-in and spin-out are not an either-or proposition. With Symbiotic Innovation, you do both simultaneously, because they are interdependent activities. We’ve shared quite a few insights on the why’s and how’s of the Symbiotic Innovation concept over the years. Our latest offering is a free webcast called “Using Symbiotic Innovation to Implement Open Innovation.” Excerpted from our webinar on implementing open innovation in tech transfer offices (TTOs), this 3-minute webcast considers how applying the principles of Symbiotic Innovation can take open innovation to the next level.
Universities’ Role in Innovation
In considering the question of whether university tech transfer offices are open innovation “losers” — or how to avoid being a loser — one thing to keep in mind is that universities play a different role than companies in the open innovation process. Since universities do not sell products and by their nature contribute to the early portion of the innovation process, they cannot be expected to act the same as a company or perform the same roles. Therefore, we shouldn’t compare them to how a company would behave.
Universities have always practiced their own version of spin-in by working collaboratively with other researchers at different institutions, thereby infusing the ideas of others into their research and innovations. They also have participated as a resource to companies through sponsored research. The behavioral shift that may now be expected of universities at the front end of the process (development) is for university researchers to be more aware of — and therefore more responsive to — the back end (product) goals and requirements.
The technology transfer office can help researchers because the TTO has the skills to work with industry, understand market needs, and translate that into information that can help researchers focus their work in a way that will have a greater impact. Furthermore, the comments I’ve seen in some of the LinkedIn discussions and what I have observed for the past couple of years indicate that universities are getting more engaged in this role because they do want to be more relevant and enhance economic development.
A Matter of Metrics
The criticisms about universities being “losers” in open innovation often stem from companies not liking the terms of the agreement — that’s a totally different issue, but the TTO still has a role here. The metrics that TTOs are being measured against will influence the type of deals they pursue. Unless the metrics shift (and the administration’s understanding and acceptance of them) to allow universities to become more industry-friendly, there will continue to be a conflict between the terms TTOs push for and what companies believe are fair. Emphasizing sponsored research agreement (SRA) funding over licensing revenue is a starting point, but there are other factors as well.
For more on the subject of broadening metrics to include spin-in-related activities and outcomes, download our free white paper “How’d We Do: Establishing Useful Technology Transfer Metrics.”
One interesting comment in the mix was related to risk avoidance — that is, the TTO staff tasked with establishing deals sense they’re between a rock and a hard place with regard to terms (i.e., they’d be criticized by administrators for having “sold out cheap”) and therefore are hesitant to bring it to closure. IMHO, this gets back to the metrics issue. Having metrics that are better defined and tracked might help support TTOs to follow through and take more risk in forming deals, whether for licensing or open innovation. Some universities that do pay attention to their metrics seem to be driven to fulfill deals (since that is one of their metrics and they are rewarded on performance).
What do you think? Do you believe certain (maybe new) metrics can help overcome these issues? Post a comment below or in one of the LinkedIn groups cited above. Or send me a private message.